Cheater’s Risk: Test a Widely Held Presumption Preventing Nuclear Disarmament

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Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, there are still more than 20,000 nuclear weapons in the collective arsenals of nine nations.  Other countries, like Iran and Syria, clearly aspire to join the nuclear club.  Yet, all nations know how dangerous these weapons are.  Humanity has lived for more than fifty years, as President Kennedy put it, under a nuclear sword of Damocles – the threat of catastrophic nuclear war.  Moreover, after devastating terrorist attacks in Islamabad, Istanbul, London, Madrid, Moscow, Mumbai, New York, Tel Aviv, Washington, and other cities in the 21st Century, we worry more about the threat of nuclear terrorism.

In view of these dangers, why does this handful of nations cling to these dangerous weapons?   They do so primarily because a number of untested assumptions about the utility of nuclear weapons, and about the difficulty of eliminating them safely have long dominated debate on the issue, often in defiance of the facts.  To give just one example, nuclear weapons are said to provide the ultimate “insurance” for the security of a nation.  President Sarkozy of France said that just last year, even though twenty years before the Soviet Union had lost not only its empire in Eastern Europe but even its sovereignty and disappeared as a nation, despite having, and perhaps even partly because of having, more nuclear weapons than any other nation.

Developed by Alex Bollfrass, with assistance from Jim McGurrin and Shawn Woodley, Cheater’s Risk is an on-line game that is fun, free, and easy to play.  It is intended to dispel another untested nuclear assumption, this one about the impossibility of total nuclear disarmament.  It is widely assumed in government circles, at least, that it is impossible to eliminate all nuclear weapons because nations inevitably would cheat on the agreement.  This assumption is contradicted by the facts.

We know a great deal about how to verify the elimination of nuclear weapons and the facilities that are used to produce them.   Four nations have actually given up their nuclear arsenals under the supervision of other states (Belorussia, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Ukraine).  Many other nations have halted programs aiming to build nuclear weapons and dismantled relevant facilities, some under the watchful eyes of other states (Argentina, Brazil, Libya, among others).  The US and USSR/Russia have verified each other’s negotiated reductions in nuclear forces and monitored the number of operational long-range weapons on each side for decades.  The nations of the world have also been monitoring the total elimination of lethal chemical weapons in many nations, as dictated by the 1998 Chemical Weapons Convention.

In Cheater’s Risk, players assume the identity of a specific nation and try to cheat on a treaty that has previously eliminated all nuclear weapons from the world.  The player faces many choices in trying to beat the system, ranging from whether to use uranium or plutonium in the bomb, to how to obtain the necessary materials, to whether or not to test the weapon that he has built.  At each step, the player is informed of the odds of getting caught by national intelligence agencies or the international agency established to monitor compliance with the treaty’s terms, as well as how long it will take her to complete the step.  Both the odds of being caught and the time required are based on actual experience in the real world, as explained in the game’s companion volume, Elements of a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty (Stimson, 2009).  Following each player decision, the game determines whether or not he has gotten away with the step or has been “Blixed,” caught by the international inspectors led by the famed Hans Blix and dragged off to trial in the Hague for a crime against humanity.

So, give it a whirl.  Go to and try to beat the disarmament system and seek world domination.  You have nothing to lose but your life and your adopted country!


Barry Blechman is co-founder of the Stimson Center and a Stimson Distinguished Fellow currently working on developing solutions for the nuclear threat. 


Alex Bollfrass is a Research Associate for the International Security and Nuclear Weapons program


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